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Kerry harps on Cuban democracy, climate change in OAS speech

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Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he speaks at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington.

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When it comes to promoting democracy in Cuba, Washington is committed to excursion diplomacy — packing airline flights to the island with U.S. travelers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today said the 2010 program that has allowed millions of people to visit Cuba in what are known as “people-to-people exchanges” is a vital part of U.S. foreign policy.

“We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors,” he said during a speech at the Organization of American States’ headquarters in Washington. “They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.”

In 2012, some 3 million people visited the island, including about 476,000 Cuban Americans. And South Florida travel agencies are expecting a big bump in traffic over the holidays.

But leniency, both with visits and remittances to the island, shouldn’t be mistaken for complacency, Kerry said.

“We look forward to the day — and we hope it will come soon — when the Cuban government embraces a broader political reform agenda that will enable its people to freely determine their own future,” Kerry said in one of his most extensive speeches on Latin America since taking office.

The OAS event, which was co-hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue, focused on common challenges to the region, including climate change, education and employment. But Kerry also called on the organization to press Cuba and Venezuela — where he said the Andean country had been weakening its institutions — to embrace democracy.

The speech comes at a delicate time for the Obama administration. Washington has been under fire for neglecting the region even as the National Security Agency has been accused of spying on the hemisphere’s leaders. Kerry acknowledged the spying scandals but said the region’s “shared democratic values” would allow “us all to figure out how we’re going to get through and build a stronger foundation for the future.”

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed a state visit in October after reports emerged that the NSA had been snooping on her government and the national oil company. During his speech, Kerry recalled facing protesters during a trip to Brasilia over the summer.

“I don’t speak Portuguese,” he said. “But I did understand the four-letter words that they yelled because they were in English.”

Kerry closed his speech talking about climate change and a proposal to connect the energy grid across the hemisphere.

“If we harness the power of wind in Mexico and the biomass in Brazil, the sunshine in Chile and Peru, the natural gas in the United States and Argentina,” he said, “then the enormous benefits for local economics, public health and of course climate change mitigation could reach every corner of the Americas and beyond.”

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